The Challenge of Entrepreneurial Leadership

There’s a saying that ‘position gives authority and behavior earns respect’.

In coaching leaders across many countries, I’ve learned that the best leaders are open to learning from anyone and anything around them. They are humble, they don’t rely on seniority or a title to get things done, and they build support and follower-ship through the values they demonstrate. These leaders also understand that leadership and learning are integral to each other. 

Like Spiderman, great leaders know that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. We trust our leaders not only with the care of our business, but with the ambitions and aspirations of every employee they lead. Whether they have the opportunity to influence many people or just one, this responsibility requires the ability to be intentional about the behaviors that will live up to this trust, working in service of a need beyond their own.

Too few, however, recognize how important risk-taking can be, especially when setting an example for their teams. A common scenario is one where executives proclaim their support for change and for a new way of managing uncertainty. Then, they follow it with a complaint that they don’t know how to ‘make’ their middle managers take more risks.

And the perspective of those middle managers? They want more autonomy for decision-making and work prioritization, but ‘leadership’ won’t let go of the reins.

What makes this important now is the Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA) world we live in, where success means shifting both mindsets and skill sets. The world, customers, and employees are all challenging leaders to think and act in new ways, and to push boundaries to create a simpler and more ambidextrous enterprise.  

Current leadership models have moved from command and control to a matrixed organization that will ultimately lead towards a model of more horizontal and fluid teams with the authority to make decisions closer to where the need lies.

In reviewing recent research regarding emerging trends in the skills, capabilities, traits, and behaviors indicative of successful leaders, here are a few attributes that are rising to the top:


Today’s best leaders are authentic in their character and their communications. They are honest about themselves and their shortcomings. They don’t try to keep up an illusion of perfection or omniscience. Instead, they listen to feedback thoughtfully, reward the best ideas regardless of where they come from, and have no patience for egos that get in the way of the work.


These best leaders cultivate environments of mutual trust – between themselves and their employees, and between the company and its customers. When processes are designed around highly capable people who have been empowered to operate at their fullest potential, the result is great performance and great culture.


In contrast with the command-and-control leaders of the past, they are approachable and eager to listen. They take time to understand their employees’ points of view in the course of making decisions and providing honest feedback. This internal culture of empathy (patience and receptiveness) inevitably trickles down to employee-customer interactions as well.


Today’s best leaders operate their businesses with full internal transparency. There is no such thing as privileged information and employees are encouraged to communicate with one another openly, outside of any traditional channels of communication. When everyone has the same information, teammates are more trusting of one another and they can solve problems, change directions, and implement feedback much more quickly.


Adaptability is prized by successful leaders. They set a purpose that isn’t dependent on a particular technology or moment in time, but is overarching and fundamentally relevant. They aren’t afraid of the future and its potential threats because their teams are optimized for adaptation and reinvention. They seek shorter and shorter feedback loops so that the company can make better decisions in the short and medium term.

These attributes serve as the foundation for leadership skills and actions that are increasingly important in an environment that fosters innovation: faster paced, dynamic, information-rich, flatter, multi-generational and global. It’s important to remember that leaders are ultimately responsible for being stewards of their organizational culture and business outcomes. They set the tone and model the behaviors. 

Building executional excellence does not have to come at the expense of innovation. Quite the contrary: it can help uncover powerful ideas and innovation from the frontline teams that are closest to the customer. And it can create excitement and loyalty among the employee base.

Here are some ways leaders can create an environment that fosters innovation:

  1. Encourage creativity: allow team members to think outside the box. Encourage brainstorming sessions and provide opportunities for teams to come up with innovative ideas.
  2. Provide resources: Provide your team with what they need to innovate, such as access to new technologies, funding for research and development, and training programs to develop new skills.
  3. Emphasize experimentation: Encourage your team to try new things and take risks. Create a culture where failure is seen as an opportunity to learn and grow, rather than a reason for punishment. Ask better questions, and be prepared to be wrong.
  4. Foster collaboration: Encourage collaboration among team members, and between different departments or teams within the organization. Foster an environment of trust and openness, where team members feel comfortable sharing their ideas and feedback.
  5. Recognize innovation: Reward innovative ideas and projects within your organization. This can be done through awards, bonuses, or promotions.
  6. Lead by example: As a leader, show your team through your own words and actions that you value innovation and are willing to take risks and try new things yourself.

By creating an environment that encourages innovation, you can inspire your team to come up with new and creative ideas that can help your organization to grow and succeed.


Marilyn Gorman is a Director at Lean Startup Co., a product and innovation consultancy that equips clients to systematically vet, shape, and de-risk new business opportunities.

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